Wittgenstein in Exile

James C. Klagge

Book cover

I was meaning to write this book review on Father’s Day (seeing as how my dad wrote it), but I didn’t get around to it so today will have to do.

My dad is a philosophy professor specializing in Wittgenstein. Although he (my dad) and I are pretty close, and have talked about a lot of philosophical things, we’ve never talked about Wittgenstein–and consequently I knew very little about him (Wittgenstein) before reading this book. I’m not sure how to explain this, except to say that neither of us ever brought it up. I guess I never knew how to approach it.

One consequence of all that is that I didn’t have a lot of background info on W before reading this book, and I think I probably would have gotten more out of it if I did. That said, WiE has enough background that it’s pretty easy to follow along even as a novice.

It took me a while to get into the book, and I only really clicked with it at one of the last chapters, “Das erlosende wort”. This phrase, in German, means something like “the liberating word” or “the redeeming word” (though my dad largely leaves the adjective in the German). The phrase refers to W’s insistence that it is important to know (or perhaps “have a feel for” is a better word) when to stop–to stop pressing the issue, to stop following the chain of reasons, to stop investigating causes, etc. The erlosende word is that which allows one to stop. This, my dad argues, is an element of W’s temperament, and closely related to his feeling of being an exile from an earlier era. Indeed it does not seem to fit at all with our culture, which is what makes it such an interesting point to try to take seriously.

On some level, it is obvious that it is necessary to stop at some point, if only to avoid infinite regress. You can’t define every word without eventual circularity; geometry has to start with axioms; when continually pressed by a toddler you must finally say “because I said so!” But while most modern people would agree to the existence of this logical bound, there is very little evidence in modern civilization of people electing to stop. Although my dad doesn’t use this terminology, my feeling was that W sees this as an abdication of responsibility, even evidence of a lack of character. To pursue logical or causal chains without limit is, implicitly, to presume that there is inexhaustible value in such pursuit, and/or to delegate that judgment to someone else. Again, my dad does not make these references, but I see W’s position as having an affinity with Alasdair MacIntyre and Jacques Ellul–the former’s argument that morality loses its foundation without a telos (i.e. a place where reasons stop), the latter’s discussion of how means have subdued ends in the modern world. I think that MacIntyre and Ellul may also have been people who felt like exiles–and that, to some extent, I am–and that perhaps my dad is as well.

One related and extremely interesting issue that my dad takes up is whether knowledge itself (as opposed to the ab-use of knowledge) can ever be harmful. (It is not obvious to me that it is necessary to prove this in order to favor not automatically pursuing knowledge, but it would certainly be sufficient.) The examples he gives are that a dying man may be better off not knowing he is dying (because of the extra stress it would cause him); that knowledge of evil may lead to loss of innocence; and that learning of unattainable possibilities may increase dissatisfaction. I kept thinking about this, and I think there are some interesting possibilities he didn’t explore.

There is, for example, a broad class of examples in which gaining knowledge decreases wonder (which I will take as an axiomatic good). These could perhaps be classified with “loss of innocence,” but not in the sense that my dad mentions. For instance, when I was little and we were stopped in traffic at a red light, my dad would suddenly say, “CHANGE!” and gesture, wizard-like, at the light–and it would turn green a second later. I was completely baffled and tickled by this until I figured out that he was just looking at the orthogonal light. Similar cases would include learning the dominant strategy in a simple game such as tic-tac-toe, and of course learning that Santa Claus is really your parents. I don’t mean to say that the lost wonder has infinite value–there are certainly cases where it is counterbalanced by gains–but simply that it is not a priori obvious that the gains will outweigh the losses in every case.

I also want to problematize the declared distinction between “knowledge” and “use of knowledge,” in two ways. First, I think the deck is unfairly stacked in favor of knowledge in this question because it is so natural for us to think of the benefits of knowledge in terms of its uses. However, we are stipulating that we are only allowed to consider non-use costs of knowledge, so we should also consider only its non-use values. And what are those? As with its costs, they always end up seeming pretty fuzzy–some vague pleasure-of-knowing is about all I can think of. Second, I do not think that the distinction between knowledge and its use is always a clear one when it comes to humans. As one example, I used to have a music blog. When I was writing it, I assiduously avoided installing software that would allow me to see how many people were reading it. I did that because I did not want to take on the cares and stresses of thinking about how big my audience was. Someone could argue that there would be no harm in my knowing the size of my audience; the harm would only be in my worrying about it–I could just choose not to! I think we are all used to the sense in which knowledge and its application are not objectively separable in such an ideal way.

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars